The Guardian

Chapter 1: Imaginary Friend

A soft wind stirred the child's hair as he built a castle of sand and stone by the river. His chubby fingers worked feverishly and he sang to himself in a high clear voice. He frowned in concentration as he watched a crystal gecko scurry across his hand. Living things loved the boy. Small jungle primates seemed to follow him and at least once a week, the curious five year-old presented his parents with a lizard, snake, or insect. Ben Skywalker was a quiet child. His flame-colored hair so like his mother's matched the fire in his spirit. Two deep blue pools at once solemn and playful regarded the world with finely tuned perception. His eyes were his father's. Luke watched him play and sighed remembering the ghostly roar of a Skyhopper engine, the hot wind ruffling his hair, and a teenager's jubilant cry. His wife's reassuring presence drew him from his meditations.

"Where did you go just now, love? You're so distant."

Luke rubbed hand over his weary eyes. "I was wondering what trials Ben will have to face in his own life and if he'll be ready." His hand absently brushed the red scar on his chest where a Yuzzum-Vong amphistaff nearly ended his life.

"He's already showing so much potential. When the time comes he will be ready," Mara's emerald eyes focused on their son intently. "I can feel it." Luke placed an arm around her shoulders and held her close. She shifted to meet his serene gaze. "Besides, we'll be with him at every step." Luke smiled, but to her, his expression seemed hesitant.

Ben had finished his castle and was now chasing an insect. His song finished, he cocked his head to the side as if listening and laughed.

"He's been having nightmares again," Luke whispered.

"I know. I hear him crying at night. Last night it took us an hour to calm him down."

"He's been through a lot for a kid his age." Luke's eyes filled with clouds of regret and loss.

Mara stepped a little closer to the bank as Ben teetered on the edge. Reflexively, she reached out with the Force to steady him and move him a few inches back. "We all have."

Luke drew a deep breath of forest air."I think it's more than that—he sees an alien race, a distant planet. Sometimes, he sees people suffering, but he doesn't understand."

Mara faced him alarmed at the concern in his eyes. "Do you think he sees the future?"

"I don't know. I don't want him to make the mistakes I made."

Mara's hand on his shoulder was steady and her voice was strong. "He won't. He's got his mother to make sure of that, and if he does, I'll kill him."

Luke grinned broadly with the smile she hadn't seen in ages. "There's the farmboy I married."

Ben wiped grimy fingers on his robes and ran on his short legs to hug his mother then his father nearly knocking Luke off his feet. Luke smoothed his silky hair. "Daddy, don't be sad," Ben said.

"I'm not anymore," Luke said sending a wave of gratitude and love to his son.

Ben squirmed out of his father's embrace and presented his mother with a wet fist. "Guess what I found, Mommy?" Luke chuckled and Mara sighed. That was one of Ben's newest games. So far he hadn't found anything dangerous or poisonous. "What, sweetie?"

Ben gulped a breath of air before rapidly opening his hand and showing her a small red frog covered with yellow bumps. "I think it's a frog. Threepio said that frogs are amphi-beans

Luke and Mara both relaxed and Luke said. "That's great, Ben, but why don't you put him back by the River now. It'll be dark soon."

Ben pouted. "I was playing with my friend. Can I stay five more minutes?"

Luke and Mara exchanged worried glances. Over the summer when there were few students at the academy , Ben was lonely without children his age, and the rest of his family was spread over the galaxy after the war. For the last few weeks, Ben had been talking to an "imaginary friend." At first, Luke and Mara dismissed it as a phase, but Ben was losing interest in other things. Ben continued stringing his words together in excitement, "?"

"C'mon, time for bed," Mara answered. They each took a small hand in their own and led him inside.

Ben was jumping on the bed when Luke came to tuck him in. Mara passed him in the hall soaking wet leaving footprints in the hall. She met his questioning stare only with the words, "Don't ask." Luke used the Force to catch him in midair causing him to giggle until he returned him gently to the bed. "Hey, no fair!" Ben shouted. Luke tucked him in and settled down in a chair beside the bed. Ben, energetic as ever asked his father, "Is it storytime?" Luke stretched his aching legs in front of him knowing he would give in before he answered. "Maybe one. Which one do you want to hear—the krayt dragon and the knight, the princess and the pirate, the Wookie and the Ewok?"

"The one about you and Mommie," Ben interrupted.

"Again?" Luke replied.

"Yes, it's my favorite one!" Ben snuggled under his blankets to listen to the story.

"Alright. Once upon a time there was a beautiful woman under the spell of a wicked, wicked man…."

Ben's eyes were already getting heavy. "Mommie." He whispered.

Luke smiled as he told the story of how he and Mara once enemies became friends and fell in love. Ben never tired of hearing about their adventures. Soon, Ben was snoring softy. Luke quietly go to his feet and kissed Ben softly on the forehead. "Goodnight, Ben," he whispered. He turned hearing a chuckle from the doorway and smiled sheepishly. "It's his favorite story." Mara took his arm and they walked together back to their room. "It's mine, too," Mara answered.

The same nightmare returned. Dark, shadowy figures moved toward Ben's parents. Their lightsabres were drawn casting faint light. They moved to fight, but the Darkness became thick, impenetrable, it threatened to swallow them, block them from his view. Everything became cold and Ben felt sick. He couldn't see his parents at all anymore. Then, the Darkness was coming for him and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

Ben sat up breathing heavily as the darkness of the dream was replaced by the darkness in his room. He wanted to call for his parents, but he still felt sick. He rubbed his eyes blinking at the soft light that suddenly filled his eyes. At the foot of his bed was a boy about 16, short but muscular with disheveled dark hair. He spoke softly to avoid frightening the child. "Don't be afraid. I'm here now." He smiled extending a translucent hand to caress the child's hair even though the touch was felt only as the tingling warmth of a summer breeze. A tear rolled down Ben's cheek. "I thought you wouldn't come back after the bad thing I said."

"I knew you needed me," the boy replied.

"I didn't really want you to go away—I was just mad that Mom and Dad couldn't see you."

"I know, Bennie. As long as you need me I'll always be here. I promise."

"I had the bad dream again," Ben sniffed, "The one where Mom and Dad are in trouble and I can't stop it. Everything was dark and I was so scared." His voice trailed off. He was losing his breath from crying.

The boy spoke looking directly in Ben's eyes, "Shhh. It was only a dream. You have a great light inside you, a great power in the force and when and if the time comes, you'll know how to use that light to fight the Darkness."

Ben rubbed his eyes and wiped his nose on his sleeve. "How come Daddy can't see you?" Ben asked.

The spirit answered thoughtfully, "Your dad isn't ready yet, but I think in his heart, he can feel me here. One day, he'll be ready."

Ben still didn't understand. "Soon?" he asked.

The spirit smiled in response. "I hope so."

"Why is daddy so sad? Is it my fault?"

The spirit felt his heart break. "No. Of course not. You make him happy every day."

"How do you know?"

"I feel it," the spirit replied.

Ben yawned and rubbed his eyes. The spirit whispered close to his ear, "Sleep now."

"Will you stay with me until I fall asleep?"

The spirit's image faded out but his voice remained. "Even when you can't see me, I'm here."

"Goodnight, Anakin.

"Goodnight, kiddo."

Mara stirred and smiled at her husband's snore. The sound of Ben's voice and the voice of—another jolted her from drowsiness. She padded softly down the hall cursing herself for leaving her lightsaber behind. She sensed no danger coming from the room. Her son slept soundly and there was no sign of anyone. She leaned against the cool stone of the hall. "Dammit, Jade you're going crazy," she softly cursed.

The next morning, she stole a quiet moment with her husband before the morning's assembly. Most of the students were visiting families and the academy was awaiting a supply run. She watched him straighten the folds of his robes uncertain where to begin, but Luke knew immediately when something was bothering her—one of the disadvantages of having a Force sensitive husband.

"What's wrong?" he placed a comforting hand on her shoulder as she pushed her long copper hair out of her face. "Damn it, Skywalker. Just once could you let me tell you before you read my thoughts."

"Sorry, but you're not exactly hard to read today," he answered. His tone quickly became more serious. "You know you can tell me anything."

"Last night I swear I heard Ben talking to someone in his room."

"Another student?" Luke interrupted.

"No. When I got to his room, there was no one there." She continued.

"Do you think it was his imaginary friend? Jaina had this Alderannian rock bear that she used to take on the Falcon and remember Jacen's krayt dragon?"

Mara smiled remembering happier times when the twins were young. "It guarded his room at night," she supplied.

"This was different. I can't explain it, but I felt a presence. Familiar, but…strange, too," she told him. An edge crept into her voice. "Do you think this presence is of the Dark Side?"

"I didn't sense any danger," he reassured her.

"Neither did I." Mara turned away from him as dark thoughts assaulted her mind. "What if there's something wrong with our son? I was so sick before he was born that sometimes I worry that my sickness affected Ben."

Luke pulled her too him remembering the illness that had ravaged his wife's usually strong body and nearly taken her from him. "Ben's healthy and very normal. If you're worried I can have Cilgahl examine him."

Outside his parents room, Ben crouched behind the door. He heard their voices and felt their concern and wanted to see what was wrong. They were worried about him. And he heard them mention Cilgahl. He was in trouble this time. He loved the Mon Cal healer 's large sad eyes and gentle touch, but the last time he went to see her, he remembered getting -immoniations…imminations…(what did Mommy call it?). They were supposed to keep him healthy, but they hurt and he didn't want to take them again. Ben knew he might get in trouble, but he felt like he was causing enough trouble for his parents. He sneaked back to his room and grabbed his backpack that was almost as big as he was and packed his datapad and snatched some ration bars from the academy cafeteria and headed outside. No one noticed as he walked out of the temple and toward the river.